When digging through the digital crates of online music, occasionally you completely miss something. You’ve done your due diligence checking the blogs, keeping the SoundCloud feed greased, hitting up the homies, and vigilantly reading through Underground Hip-hop distributors. You feel pretty confident in your knowledge of the scene, and know who’s who, for the most part. Even if you haven’t listened to that particular mixtape, you’re still familiar with the emcee that dropped it. Then something shifts and you’re completely knocked off your feet. After a deeply comatose rest, I was slapped in the face with the grimy hand of hardcore hip-hop artists Conway the Machine and his brother Westside Gunn. Their verses on Meyhem Lauren’s Gems From the Equinox release piqued my interest. Even the gravelly voice of Conway’s verse on “Hashashin” stood out as a cool and ominous dash of reality. After the supremely dope video for that same song was released, my intrigue only grew. After some more research, I realized that I had crashed into an iceberg. There was an extensive article in UGHH.com. Then Conway the Machine achieving artist of the month in Consequence of Sound. And just last week, a photo surfaced on Hot New Hip-Hop featuring a photo of J.Cole and Westide Gunn. Beneath the surface of this hip-hop purity, lay a far-reaching empire of hip-hop greatness emanating from one of the most unexpecting corners of the United States: Buffalo, New York. I damn near doubled over in surprise.
Although halfway across the state from my own hometown of Albany, NY, Buffalo constitutes the other end of New York’s rust belt and represents the furthest reach of Upstate New York. Only those that hail from it claim so deeply. When I first plunged into hip-hop in 10th grade, I was always searching for local Albany hip-hop, wanting to hear what Upstate was capable of churning out. New York City did and continues to dominate the East Coast hip-hop scene and clearly remained king in my neck of the woods. It was rare to see aspiring artists choose to stay in the 518 and many hit the road for the five boroughs. The minuscule hip-hop market was always comprised of several mainstays or those that continued to shine a light on the capital region from afar. Although Awar hails from Troy, NY, his start at Fordham marked the end of his foray in the upstate New York scene and he worked with producers and emcees in the city. Sev Statik was another Albany mainstay, working with Albany rappers like Shyste and Knowledge. A month ago, after fifteen years of listening to him, I finally managed to catch Sev’s new group Und3rstanding open for Big Daddy Kane along the Hudson River. Despite fits and starts in the scene, Albany has traditionally been too provincial, too close to NYC, and too small to have a gravitational pull in the hip-hop world. The music scene never could gain much ground, and even its primary venue for touring hip-hop artists, Upstate Concert Hall, lies a half hour north near the city of Saratoga.
Buffalo is an entirely different story. As one of the poorest cities in the state with a per capita income of $20,726 and a poverty rate of 30.1 percent, it fairs only slightly better than other rust-belt towns like Cleveland and Detroit. The crime rate in Buffalo remains staggeringly high, at about three times the national rate and the worst of any city in New York State, in terms of violent crime. From its peak population in 1950 of 580,000 people, the city’s population has more than halved, to 256,000 in 2016. It is distant from NYC and situated only a few hours drive to Ohio, it is often considered to share more of an identity with the Midwest than with New York itself. There have been positive developments, including a slowly revitalizing West Side that the NY Daily News compared to Brooklyn and newly converted architectural monuments that have become commercial venues. Cuomo has pumped money into Upstate New York through his Revitalization Initiative and the Buffalo Billion has produced some promising results. Nevertheless, despite the enticing carrots like startup money for young entrepreneurs or luring young people away from costly NYC neighborhoods, the city has suffered from a dismal reputation. Out of the embers of this poverty and blight emerged Griselda Records.
Comprised of Conway the Machine (pictured above), Benny the Butcher and Westside Gunn (and the now deceased Machine Gun Black), Griselda Records have been doing it hard since 2012. Their initial moniker, Street Entertainment, and their group the Forerunners, eventually rebranded as Griselda Records, naming themselves after the Colombian drug empress Griselda Blanco. Westside Gunn, originally moving between Atlanta and Buffalo, and the biological brother of Conway the Machine, has had a storied foray into the hip-hop scene. After serving time in federal prison, Wes decided it was the moment to deliver a much-needed breath of fresh air into the Buffalo hip-hop scene and seize the moment. Despite his legal woes and raising two children from a young age, Westside Gunn transformed his troubles into a lucrative business enterprise when he recognized he could import the style and substance from Atlanta right into Buffalo. This is evidenced in Griselda’s ascendance within the fashion space where the style flaunted by Westside Gunn and Conway the Machine has become as notorious as their sound. Fashion Rebels’ clothing items, including OG Flygod and Scorpion Logo hoodies, have been out of stock for months with asking prices on eBay of $130. Their albums follow a similar pattern, and since the start of 2018, Flygod vinyls and merchandise have been sold out.
Despite the highly coveted clothing items and mixtapes, supply does not seem to be the issue. After all, Griselda is nothing short of prolific. They have released countless mixtapes and after the 2017 critical acclaim of Westside Gunn’s debut album Flygod, the label continues to pump out music. Westside Gunn has been at the forefront, dropping tracks with MF Doom and churning out extremely ill music on his Hitler Wears Hermes tapes. Griselda excels in its own style of mafioso rap that harks back to the sounds of Raekwon and CNN, earning them an immense amount of traction in New York City even while they stay true to their Buffalo roots. The last few months have been productive. In April, Conway the Machine released Blakk Tape, in June Benny the Butcher dropped A Friend of Ours, and not three weeks later, Westside Gunn dropped the insanely dope Supreme Blientele, an album soaked in gritty beats and raspy lyrics that hark back to the mid-90s.
Their mixtapes regularly feature wrestling references, gangsta movie quotes, and machine gun sounds, and Supreme Blientele is no exception. To flex Griselda’s muscle, the album features guest appearances from well-known artists like Anderson .Paak and old-school veterans like Busta Rhymes, and Jadakiss. Supreme Blientele is summed up in DJBooth perfectly: “Every story pulled from the sewer drain of his experiences on the streets of Buffalo, New York intersects at the pleasure end of a Hermes bag or a Balenciaga cap, an internal mix of Dom Perignon and lobster with fried rice.”
Conway the Machine, probably the lyrical heavy hitter within Griselda, flexed his chops on the Blakk Tape and caught my eye most with Reject 2, a dark and winding portrait through the streets of Buffalo and the hardened circumstances that shaped Conway’s upbringing. Conway, unlike his brother who showcases stylish bling and speaks of flamboyant riches, tends to describe grittier scenes of street life that cast shadows over tracks like flickering street lights down an abandoned alley. The video for Rex Ryan alone is a scratchy, film noir depiction of the streets of New York with Westside Gunn, Conway, and New York veteran Roc Marciano kicking some serious verses over a dope Daringer beat. He’ll still work with other hip-hop mainstays, like Danny Brown, but definitely paints the blight of the streets with dark and irreverent strokes. While Westside Gunn is the founding architect and mastermind behind the business vision of Griselda, it is Conway, and Benny to some extent, that stand apart as the lyrical heavy hitters of the group. Verses like the ones below are par for the course on the tape, and melancholy, operatic samples are laced over slowed break-beats, a signature style for producer Daringer.
I been thru it, all my scars are the proof
I sold rocks on the stoop
Now it’s BET awards in a suit
Cracking cigars underneath the stars in the roof
But I’m still thanking God for all that he do
Got shot // Bell’s palsy so my jaw wouldn’t move
Now I, can outrap your whole squad and ya crew
Or whatever you wanna call it, yall garbage is true
Lastly, there is Benny the Butcher. He has released two tapes in the past year, including Butcher on Steroids in November and his A Friend of Ours, last month. Like the rest of the squad, Benny has had several run-ins with the law, and seems to derive his name both from the hard, punchy flow that cuts through beats to his actual street reputation of moving bricks through the hoods of Buffalo. Despite the recent surge in recognition of the Griselda crew at the regional and national level, all three repeatedly point out that they’re not newbies. As Benny put it during an interview with UGHH:
The thing about it is that we’ve been rapping for so long that you can go back and Google me about how I’ve been here. I’m like a folk hero for Buffalo’s music scene. If we came from any other major city, we probably would’ve been popped by now. I’m 32 years old. In my region I’m considered a legend. Conway, too. We been doing rap, so it’s like a relief for the city. It’s like ‘Oh shit, those dudes did it!’ And it’s not like we’re new dudes who popped up out of nowhere.
After signing with Shady Records last fall, the crew is continuing to pump out work and also make the rounds on the morning talk shows. From freestyles on Sway in the Morning and Hot 97 to recently touring the United States, the Griselda sound is starting to make waves. As they seek to expand their repertoire and leverage the monetary and musical resources of Shady Records, I suspect that Griselda will only become even more of a force to reckon with. As Westside Gunn noted in his interview with UGHH, “Aint shit changing at all…you’re never gonna stop Griselda.”